Cathy Towtongie knows the science behind every stitch she makes. For the past 30 years, the Rankin Inlet seamstress has been making traditional caribou fur and sealskin clothing, using patterns and designs perfected over millennia.
The elders who taught Towtongie her craft didn’t tolerate mistakes. The animals used to make clothing must first be hunted and caught, making each skin precious. Designs and measurements had to be flawless. “The calculations are into millimetres,” says Towtongie, who is also the former president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. “Once you start cutting the skin, there is no room for error.”
Included in Towtongie’s catalogue of creations is the amauti, a woman’s traditional garment. Though it goes by different names throughout the North—Towtongie’s own specialty is the tuilik, which is common in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut and has larger shoulders than other styles—amauti has become the standard term used to describe a coat with a pouch on the back used to carry a baby.
The amauti is baby-wearing at its most perfectly primal. The baby is carried in a pocket, called an amaut in Inuktitut, found underneath the hood at the back of the coat. The baby, traditionally naked, is snuggled against the mother’s bare back. This keeps it safe and warm against the Arctic cold while leaving the woman’s hands free to work.
The concept of carrying a baby on the body, rather than in a stroller, basket or some other vehicle, certainly isn’t new, but it’s now a fast-growing industry in southern Canada and the United States. Facebook pages dedicated to baby-wearing are more than 150,000 members strong and International Babywearing Week is celebrated worldwide every year. The trend is also backed up by the proven benefits to both mother and baby of physical contact.
Beautiful and unique, the amauti is one of the few carriers made for cold weather—and unlike most carriers, babies inside can either sit with legs wrapped around the wearer’s waist or stand up and stretch their legs. But the most important feature of any baby carrying device is how it makes life a little easier for moms.
In the Arctic, the amauti wasn’t conceived to fit any trend. It was borne out of necessity.
Setting the stage
When Towtongie sews, she does it at her cabin about an hour outside Rankin Inlet. Privacy and dedication to the task were stressed by the elder seamstresses who passed the craft on to her. “There must be absolutely no distraction,” she says.
This cabin, near a cove on Hudson Bay, is also where she prepares her skins in the summer. To make clothing suited to extreme winter weather, caribou must be caught at exactly the right time of year. “Dealing with caribou skin, I prefer to have it shot second week in August or towards the last week, between August and September, not any further,” says Towtongie. “The skin is good for clothing and for breathability, for survival and for perspiration. It’s not too thick. It’s the right timing.”
It’s not enough for a piece of clothing to be warm—it must also breathe. Perspiration can be a death sentence in the Arctic. In sub-zero temperatures, sweat-dampened clothing will cause hypothermia. A properly-made amauti lets warm air out without letting cold air in.
“Where my hips touch, there has to be a little bit folded so when I perspire, the air would go out,” she says. But the amauti also has to slightly hug her hips in the back and front so that frost can’t enter while she’s moving around. The secret is in the stitching, Towtongie says. A traditional stitch, sewn with sinew, must be both durable and flexible without creating holes in the fur. It’s a difficult technique that takes years to master.
Guislaine Lemay, Curator of Ethnology and Archaeology at the McCord Museum in Montreal, has studied this ancient stitch. “By folding and stitching and fusing when you pull the sinew to close the stitch, so to speak, you don’t really have a hole that goes from one end to the other,” Lemay explains. “It’s extremely sophisticated, this stitching that they use.”
Just as impressive is the way a traditional seamstress measures her materials. In the days before rulers, women used their hands, knuckles and individual fingers to measure each piece of fur needed to create a piece of clothing.
With decades of experience came the ability to perform those calculations automatically, Towtongie says. “They just look at a person and they have the right measurements. That takes time,” she says. “I’m at a point now where I can look at a person and I can pretty well do it.”
The planning involved in making an amauti is extraordinary, Lemay says. “It’s an art, there is no other way to say it,” she says. “It’s through thousands of years of experimentation and deep, deep knowledge of the properties of these skins that they basically managed to make these extremely well thought out constructed clothing pieces.”
To reduce strain on the back, a properly designed amauti distributes the
baby’s weight evenly. A piece of material wraps around the wearer’s waist to help support the baby inside the pouch. To get the right fit, measurements have to be exact, says Towtongie—and specific to the wearer.
In addition to its practicality, a traditional amauti also symbolized a woman’s phase of life. Its design and decoration told whether the wearer was a young girl, married or a widow, if she had children and which region she was from. The pouch itself would also start small, designed to fit a newborn baby. As the baby grew, additional panels would be added to make the pouch bigger. Decoration was used to highlight the woman’s role in her family and community, Lemay says. The arms of a woman’s garment typically had a pattern or ornamentation placed above the wrists, emphasizing her role as seamstress. “You see that there is an accent on that region of the body, it draws the eye really to that wrist area because it highlights her arms, her hands.” ˚
A mother’s touch
It’s the pouch that makes the amauti truly special. Inuit babies were typically carried until they were two or three years old, meaning they had almost constant skin-to-skin contact with their mothers during their first years of life. “It’s like a uterus,” Lemay says. “This is a place where mother and child have a very close contact, have a very close dialogue. It’s a privileged space between mother and child.”
The benefits of touch and skin-to-skin contact with babies and young children are well-documented, says Sandra Payne, nurse educator for the paediatric and neonatal intensive care unit at Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket, Ontario. Payne helped develop a volunteer cuddling program for premature babies that the Canadian Association of Pediatric Health Centres is now using as the model for similar programs throughout Canada.
It’s widely known that babies who are held regularly cry less and sleep better, but that’s just the beginning, Payne says. It’s only when a baby is unswaddled and in direct contact with their mother’s skin that the real magic happens.
Studies show that when a baby is placed skin-to-skin on a mother’s chest, the mother releases oxytocin, which stimulates breast milk production and, subsequently, heat. The action stimulates the baby’s sensory nerves, the blood vessels in its skin dilate and that heat is transferred from mom to baby. The baby’s levels of cortisol—also known as the stress hormone—drops, the baby relaxes, its breathing and heart rate regulate.
In academic speak, these processes are a “synchronous reciprocal interaction pattern.” You and I might call it the bond between mother and child. The key to that synchronicity is in the skin, Payne says. The body doesn’t react in the same way if there is a layer of clothing between mom and baby. Skin-to-skin contact has also been shown to actually speed and improve brain development by enhancing the development of neural pathways, Payne says. Sleep is a huge part of that process. A relaxed baby achieves Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep more easily and is able to stay asleep longer.
Another benefit is the promotion of breastfeeding for both mom and baby, Payne says. Babies held skin-to-skin immediately after being born are more likely to successfully breastfeed while mothers in turn produce more prolactin, another hormone involved in the production of breast milk. “Sixty minutes of skin-to-skin can increase feeding frequency, raise prolactin levels in the mom and help that mom maintain an adequate milk supply,” Payne says.
For Inuit mothers, the amauti created a warm environment where they could reach into the pouch and pull their babies forward to breastfeed—all within the garment.
Having a baby constantly against her back also allowed an Inuit mother to recognize and immediately respond when a baby was about to urinate or defecate. A tell-tale wiggle or movement would let mom know that it was time, then she could reach back and move the baby from the pouch to the front, allowing the baby to relieve itself onto the ground while still being protected by the front panel of the amauti.
“You have a relationship to the baby that you wouldn’t necessarily have in other cases because you really have body-to-body contact,” Lemay says.
A woman’s work
This takes on a whole new meaning when placed within the context of an Arctic nomadic culture. Inuit families were constantly on the move, following the animals they depended on for food and clothing. As seamstresses responsible for creating the clothing that kept their families alive, women were kept incredibly busy. In addition to daily chores and taking care of children, there were always clothing items that needed to be repaired or replaced.
In that environment, an amauti did more than keep baby safe and warm, it was fundamental to the entire family’s survival. “The amauti is the ideal clothing to take care of your child, to carry it, to protect it, to do your daily activities knowing your baby is going to be just fine and toasty warm,” Lemay says. “In the Arctic when you had to walk outside, when you had to do your daily activities, to have your baby safe, but have your hands free to get done what you need to get done, it’s necessary.”
Though the oldest amauti in the Montreal museum’s collection—an Inuvialuit garment from the Mackenzie Delta area—is dated to the 1850s, Lemay says the design goes back thousands of years. “It’s a piece of clothing which is thousands of years old for sure and was transmitted from generation to generation and is still used today by Inuit women,” she says. But unless younger generations start to learn the ancient techniques, that knowledge will be lost, says Towtongie. She learned her skills from elders Monica Sateana, Louisa Kaludjak, Kigutikajuk Nattar and Amagoalik Nutaradluak. And they have all passed away. “I was trained for 30 years, all of the elders that I’ve gone to are all gone,” she says.
But hope remains. Although Inuit seamstresses closely guard amauti patterns to try to avoid appropriation of the design in the south, young Inuit seamstresses now have an opportunity to share the amauti with the world with baby-wearing’s popularity steadily on the rise. But Towtongie says they must first take the time to learn from elders, just like she did. “They used to undo all my sewing if I had one stitch wrong, completely take everything out,” she says. “It had to be perfect.”